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Robert Lawrenson: 'Sanctuary' man of action Declan Macrae

Robert Lawrenson was supposed to be in just one episode of "Sanctuary," then director/producer Martin Wood learned he could ride a motorcycle.

"Halfway through I think my first day Martin said to me, 'Do you ride a motorbike?'" said Lawrenson, who plays Declan Macrae, the head of the London Sanctuary. "He said, ... We've got an episode coming up; yeah, I'm liking this Declan character.'

"And the rest is history."

It sure is. Lawrenson has become a fan favorite now that Declan has gone from a possible threat to Dr. Helen Magnus (Amanda Tapping) early in Season 2 to a loyal friend and man of action for the Sanctuary team.

He seems to pop up whenever the Magnus needs a little more muscle, like in the latest episode, "Carentan" (9 p.m. June 6, Syfy), when the team heads to the Normandy region of France to investigate the disappearance of Ravi (Shaker Paleja), the head of the Mumbai Sanctuary. Declan again teams up with Kate (Agam Darshi) after they are separated from Magnus and Will (Robin Dunne).

When I spoke with Lawrenson in North Vancouver last summer, he had just finished filming the April 25 episode "One Night," in which Declan and Kate worked closely together.

"We had a really, really good time arguing about whether Kate would be giving Declan orders or whether Declan would be giving Kate orders and changing the script accordingly," he said of his good friend Darshi. "We had a good laugh about that."

The humor and camaraderie on the "Sanctuary" set immediately caught Lawrenson's attention when he first guest-starred in the Season 2 episode "End of Nights, Part 2."

"I clicked straightaway with the team," he said. "We had a real great chemistry and I'm basically a lot like everyone on that set, that I just love having a laugh. What really gels that team together is the ability to laugh and bring lightheartedness into the day."

Lawrenson, who moved to Vancouver permanently in 2008 after doing theater and TV ("Coronation Street") in Britain, can be seen in the pilot of Fox's fall series, "Alcatraz," the film "Underwolrd 4: New Dawn" with Kate Beckinsale, and has other projects including voice over and film editing work. He'll be back in Season 4 of "Sanctuary," too. He told me via e-mail today that they currently are filming a "super cool" episode written by Martin Wood.

Lawrenson talked more about how he got into acting, playing Declan and how Christopher Heyerdahl and Robin Dunne welcomed him--er, hazed him--during his first day on set.

(I should mention, as a challenge to Mr. Lawrenson, that after our chat at Lonsdale Quay, he gave me a ride to Grouse Mountain and goaded me into doing the Grouse Grind--a big hike up the mountain. I'm not sure if he's completed it yet, but I did.)

When you first came to "Sanctuary" did you think it was just going to be one episode? I heard that's what it was supposed to be.
When I was called to the casting we'd had word ... that it may be a recurring, but there was no promise of anything and it was a one-episode booking. I just knew that I was going in for "End of Nights, Part 2" and that may be it--maybe just three days on set.

I told this story at a convention, but the first day I got [to "Sanctuary"], the first scene I actually shot was with Chris Heyerdahl, Robin Dunne and Amanda [Tapping]. It was a scene where I walked in and then I say, "Welcome to the London Sanctuary." I then shake hands with Druitt and shake hands with Will. We did a rehearsal and then we went in for the first take and Chris, ... just before we were about to roll, got one of the makeup girls to give him a massive, great big blob of moisturizing cream. He put it in his hand just before he was going to shake my hand, so I'm ready for the take and I'm a bit nervous all around it being my first day.

So the first actual take of me on this new job that could turn into more episodes and I walk out, "Welcome to London, gentlemen." I shake his hand and I just got a wet hand and I'm trying to be Declan and I thought, "Don't worry about it," just sort of this split-second thought. I turned to Robin to shake his hand and I thought that it was strange Robin has a wet hand as well, not realizing that it was on my hand. We got to the end of the take and I still didn't do anything. I just stood there; I was obviously so nervous the first day. I just stood there sort of quacking, thinking, "Are they going to say that was all right?"

Chris came over to me with a giggle in his voice and said, "Are you used to shaking hands with people with extremely wet, squishy hands?" And then he told me what he had done to my hand. That was kind of defining. If they're going to do that to you on your very first take on your first day's filming, it's going to test whether you're someone who enjoys a laugh. It was a bit of an initiation for me, I think and yeah, from there we all became friends. It is great working with them all. We have a great laugh doing it.

Have you ever watched any of the DVD extras on the season DVDs? You can really tell that everybody gets along and that they're all really close. And being on set the other day I noticed there were really no egos. Everybody knows each other's names, no matter what job they are doing.
Yeah, there is no hierarchy to speak of. Everything is level and everyone is treated equally. It's a lovely place to work.

And that shows onscreen.
Everyone greets each other with a smile and a hug in the morning and the energy just keeps going even on those Friday nights when we kind of start at four [a.m.] or finish at four. We're still kind of balls of energy.

This season you get to do scenes with all the cast, which is kind of new.
I had a lot of scenes with Agam [Darshi] last week [in "One Night," which was shot before "Carentan"], which is nice because I have not really had the chance to play scenes with Agam very much and she is a good friend. ... Declan is an ex-military Special Forces, so it is his old stomping ground when we're going out hunting down an Abnormal in enemy territory.

Even though he's not in every episode, it seems fans really love Declan.
I had a great reception at the convention because I went into that not knowing whether all the fans would remember this British guy that pops in and out. But I had a really, really good reception and chatted to a lot of the fans and people said really, really nice things, so it's obviously a popular character.

Did you change your accent at all?
I do change my accent slightly. Do you notice it?

Yes I do.
Well I'm originally from a place called Blackpool off the northwest coast of England, which is probably similar to the accents on "Coronation Street." You'll have seen "Coronation Street" I imagine at some point in your life. I used to live in that town just before I moved to Manchester.

So that is where that is set.
Yeah, it's set in Manchester and my accent is not dissimilar to their accent over there on "Coronation Street" I was a recurring character, PC Glaister, in "Coronation Street," for about four years, so I spoke with my kind of neutral accent there.

But for "Sanctuary," there was something in the casting breakdown ... and Martin made me feel like I should just make it more like Declan was from London, so I just kind of rounded my accent out, which is very easy for me to do. I went a bit more like BBC English.

How did you start acting?
I did the school plays thing when I was about 12 and then I joined a local youth theater group and we did all musical theater, so like Rogers & Hammerstein and Gilbert & Sullivan. We did two or three shows a year at local theaters and that was it for me. I just totally fell in love with standing onstage and engaging with an audience and that getting instant feedback from an audience, which is what I still love.

When I became too old for that ... some friends from that group formed a profit-share theater group in Blackpool and we performed shows at the Grand Theater, this lovely old Victorian theater. I did that for a couple of years and that was really where my love for acting came from. I did a lot of theater over the years ... and a little bit of touring around Yorkshire and the Edinburgh festival fringe. I've been over there four or five times and been in different shows.

When I started working on camera it was, I think, the first job I did was a show called Heartbeat (2002), and probably disappointment is too strong a word, but I was quite surprised how different the feel was with the whole process.

As opposed to theater?
As opposed to theater. I knew we weren't going to have a live audience. I didn't go in thinking there was going to be a live television audience standing there.

Who would be clapping.
Who would be clapping, yes, and standing at the door waiting for an autograph. [Laughs.] I wasn't so stupid as to think that, but I remember for the first few jobs I did in TV I realized that I was having to get used to a very different craft and there was a sense of disappointment there ... I'd always aimed to do work in TV and film, but not really knowing what that would be like, so when I realized that what I really loved is the interaction and playing with an audience that was a little bit disappointing for me. But over the years and over the first few jobs I found I can still have that same development as an actor working on screen.

Do you still go back to theater sometimes?
The last thing I did was four years ago, a play in the festival in Manchester, which was great. It just worked out that I managed to have the time and I managed to fit it in. At the moment I can't afford to take the time out of work with various financial commitments and whatever to do it. I would very much like to and I hope that things work out that I've got some time to do some theater. I'd like to work with Jonathon Young [Tesla on "Sanctuary"]. He is co-founder of Electric Company Theatre based in Vancouver. I saw a play that he did last year and I thought, "God, I'd really like to work with this group of actors." It was a beautifully choreographed piece of work. I hope to audition for them soon.

With theater, it's the energy that you play off with an audience and you can feel it. Every night is different in the theater. You'll feel a laugh or something or some whole part of the script is working differently for a different audience, so you'll play with it a little bit more and you'll kind of go with it a little bit more and you'll wait for the action from the audience and that is really exciting that you've got to kind of feed off the audience each night, so I do love that.

Do you have any formal training or is it sort of on the job?
I didn't go to a formal theater school, but I did a drama degree in a college in York, York University in England, which is a three-year drama and television degree, so it had a TV element to it ... It wasn't an option for me at the time financially to go to a theater school. I just couldn't afford it, so I went down the degree route and did a drama degree.

What brought you to Vancouver?
No, we were looking for a big adventure.

We, you and your wife?
Yes. I kind of missed out on traveling and that is something that I wish I had just run my life slightly differently. In my early twenties or something I would have gone off to Africa or Asia or Australia and I kind of missed the whole thing because the way my life panned out. I got stuck in my career. I've got a traveling bug and for a long time I thought about moving to the States ... We would make a move to L.A., too, if work goes that way, but we met some friends in England who were originally from British Columbia and started talking to them about Canada. I don't think I even knew where Vancouver was until I met them. I've got some family in Toronto, but didn't really know much about Vancouver. Our friends moved back ... and we came out and saw them for a couple of days and toured around the whole area.

As you know, it's an easy place to fall in love with. It has pretty much got everything you would want. It's got the big city; I can be in downtown in 15 minutes from my house, which is halfway up a mountain, which you can see the sea from. I can be on the ski slope in 15 minutes in the winter. So it was an easy place to fall in love with, so I thought well why not.

There is a lot of work here, too.
It was ideal, so I came over in 2008 as a permanent resident. I did the whole immigration thing and came over as a skilled worker, which I was surprised you were able to sponsor actors as skilled workers. That was a bit of a shock there.

That is probably a big part of the economy here, right?
Yeah, yeah. I think even more so in Toronto. I think Toronto has got more film and TV, especially at the moment because they've done the big tax credits thing where they've widened it out a lot wider.

We were talking about Declan's military background. Tell me about the Def Con 5 talent agency.
Def Con 5, these boys that Martin Wood gets in to [work on fight scenes]. ... I think some of them are ex-military blokes themselves. They all have very specific training about handling guns and about how to walk into a difficult situation, because when you've got four guys running into a situation you've got to be aware of not shooting each other. If I swing my gun I can't swing it past you, because I could let it off on you. So you have to bring your gun down and up and around and there are all these things you've got to think about that I had absolutely no idea of.

When I came I had never really done any kind of gun work. I did a little bit of work onstage with a gun in theater, but I've never been in anything like this that we were going to be running into these situations military-style. I'd watched "24" and seen them running in and just thought that was great.

We had guns in "End of Nights 2," but it was in "Hero" where we had Chris Gauthier [guest-starring] ... We were storming into a warehouse together and there was another scene where I was coming in and the Coleanthropus, if I remember right, was poking its nose out through the bins and there are four of us running in. The first time I did it I walked into the warehouse and Rob Hayter, who is one of our stunt coordinators, said, "Rob, can I just show you about holding the gun? "Can you show me how you hold it?"

So I said, "Right, yeah, OK."

"What you need to do," he said and showed me. And I couldn't quite see what I'd done differently, but I knew he looked right, so I said, "Well what was I doing wrong, Rob?" He said, "You weren't doing anything wrong. You just didn't look very cool, to be honest."

So then I went from being all excited to suddenly thinking, "Oh my God, I'm just going to look like a bloody fool in these situations!" I was introduced to the Def-Con 5 boys when we were doing this Coleanthropus scene.

It was great because Martin introduced us and we probably had an hour to talk about how we would come in if someone was flanking somebody else and who would go in first and the lead man, Declan would in this situation, would go in second. It is fascinating to have that kind of real accurate portrayal and draw it into the way we're representing it onscreen. It really looked good, too .

The Def Con 5 people are brilliant ... They've got absolutely everything down and it's great to have those guys to work with.

Do they just come in whenever there is some kind of action sequence?
Yeah, they'll be used as Declan's men, for example. They're going around doing all the shows. You'll see them on all sorts of shows as cops or whatever.

Did you have any trouble doing green screen work?
I didn't think I was going to be, but I was daunted by it a little bit. I've listened to Ewan McGregor talking a lot about when he did the "Star Wars" movies, and I've worked on a green screen as a host. ... I just never had to react to certain things that are going to happen on that third green cross from the wall sort of thing ... That is a little bit challenging.

I said to Amanda that I was a bit nervous about it the first day and she said, "Think about it like this: You know how often have you been in a play where you've been on an empty stage ... and you've had no scenery, no nothing, not even a defined space? You've just been in a room and that has become all about the acting ensemble and it's been irrelevant that there is no scenery or props."

That just clicked for me. I just thought, "Why am I all worried about it? I'll let the guys that are creating the visual effects and I'll let Martin worry about how the world around us fills in. I'll just focus on what I'm doing with the people I'm working with and that was it."

I'd give that same piece of advice to anyone coming in. That was brilliant, especially if you have done a lot of theater. So yeah, it doesn't worry me at all now. I got used to it very quickly.

What do you want to see Declan do in the future?
I've really enjoyed having been established as part of the core team ... It's been nice being part of that team and also having the opportunity to show Declan is a bit more human and has a bit of a lighthearted side, especially after being sort of this potentially dangerous person who was trying to take over the network. Although as an actor, it is always more fun playing a bad guy, so I could quite easily swallow being a threat to the Sanctuary network.

So like flipping sides a little bit?
Yeah, but that's why "Veritas" was such a great episode that Alan McCullough wrote that we did [in Season 2] because I had all that to play with in it, but then I came around and at the end it was very clear that Declan was just trying to protect Magnus. The great thing about the show ... is a character can go through these journeys just within one episode and so there are opportunities for any of us, whether good or bad, to flip sides and come back.

What other projects are you working on?
I'm actually working on a project of my own. The great thing about this city is people don't sort of seem to keep knocking on doors trying to get involved in something as much as they go out and do it themselves. That's kind of rubbing off on me; the way that it has become so accessible to shoot high definition video. ... There are a couple of scripts that I'm kind of developing. ... I'm a job actor, so I'm out casting all the time. ... In this industry, I think you've got to kind of make things happen.

You can't wait for others to find you.
No, you can't sit and wait for the phone to ring. You've really got to go get it. That is another thing about this town. Like I was saying, if people want to be involved in making a short [film] they'll just do it. ... I do quite a lot of voiceover work and I've been working on some animation stuff and I do a lot of narration work as well, so that keeps me busy. I also work as a film editor.

Oh wow.
Yeah, I'm working on a documentary at the moment in Vancouver. ["Village on a Diet," which he also narrates.]

Are you self taught on that?
Yeah, pretty much. I've been working with people over the years.

Are you ever going to direct an episode of "Sanctuary"? Is that something you would ever want to try?
It's absolutely something [I want]. This is why I'm developing this short. This is going to be my first. I directed short films at university, but it was very much a learning curve for me. It was nothing I would ever show anybody, but I've learned a hell of a lot about my craft and about the whole filmmaking process since then and very much from editing. I've edited primetime dramas in the UK for the major TV networks.

I feel I've got a lot to give as a director and having worked with Amanda and Martin they're two of the people that I would absolutely [want to work with]. You could learn everything you need to learn about directing from those two. Martin is a genius and has such vision. His knowledge is incredible and the way he can visualize something from a script and then take it through to what it becomes with the team around him is amazing.

And Amanda is less of a technical director, but a very much an actor's director. She just knows exactly what the actor would want to hear in order to find the motivation in a scene...

I'm just working with them and learning a lot from them. I'd love to direct something like "Sanctuary" one day, but I need to cut my teeth a little bit. That is what I'm going to do with my own project. I'm going to direct a short and we're going to take it from there.

Was it fun playing Robin's dad for seven minutes in "Beyond Sherwood Forest"?
I think it was six and a half. If you add the two flashback scenes it becomes seven. [Laughs.] I had a day on that. I didn't even meet Robin. I think it was before I started doing "Sanctuary," a few months before.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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